The Body in the Library (1942) by Agatha Christie

This is the first of my November re-reads. The author’s foreword is definitely worth reading, as it sums up well what Christie set out to do with this title:

‘There are certain clichés belonging to certain types of fiction. The ‘bold bad baronet’ for melodrama, the ‘body in the library’ for the detective story. For several years I treasured up the possibility of a suitable ‘Variation on a well-known Theme.’ I laid down for myself certain conditions. The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body.’

And these intentions are successfully delivered in the story that follows. Murder is introduced as an almost comic intrusion in the opening paragraphs. Christie emphasises the ordered routine of Mrs Bantry’s mornings, with the reader just knowing that any second they will be swept away. And, of course, they are when Mrs Bantry’s dreams are broken by a maid declaring that there is a body in the library. Dolly and Colonel Bantry live at Gossington Hall and the corpse is a ‘a wildly improbably and highly sensational’ one; a young blonde woman in a tawdry silver dress. Her body is later identified by a relation as Ruby Keene, a dance hostess at a coastal hotel, not that many miles away. W H Auden in ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ writes that:

‘Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder […] The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because; even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.’

Christie nails this requirement with demonstrable ease and finesse, as all those involved struggle to understand how Ruby ended up in the Bantry’s library. She is indeed ‘incongruous.’

The Colonel calls in the police and by the end we have at least four different officers involved, from a normal inspector and a chief constable, to a superintendent and a retired officer from Scotland Yard. This is perhaps a little bit overkill. However, Dolly only calls upon one sleuth, her friend Jane Marple. Initially, in keeping with the lighter tone of the opening, Dolly invites her friend to investigate as part of the fun:

‘What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean. That’s why I want you to come and help me find out who did it and unravel the mystery and all that. It really is rather thrilling, isn’t it?’

Yet as the book progresses, we find that Dolly may have less jovial reasons and instead is desperate to prove her husband’s innocence, before he becomes a total social pariah. Village gossip is shown at its worst in this tale.

Artificiality is often a criticism levelled at classic crime fiction and is often cited as a reason for dismissing it. Nevertheless, I think in this story Christie has a lot of fun with this concept and unsurprisingly uses it to hoodwink her readers, who think they know what’s going to happen due to the inclusion of stock characters. Early on in the story the idea of what’s fake and what’s genuine is voiced by Dolly, who says to Jane about the body: ‘and when you’ve seen her you’ll understand what I mean when I say she doesn’t look real at all.’ This aura of artificiality in the victim’s clothing and makeup leads the male investigators to make numerous assumptions about the sort of case they’re dealing with. Yet even on the surface Christie leaves details that suggest otherwise, details she parades before the reader, as well as the series of sleuths. Interestingly it is the female sleuths in Jane and Dolly who voice these pointers, which scream to be considered. Yet these pointers quickly become overlook as the male led investigation provides us with different ideas, which seemingly confirm certain points, but in fact only obfuscate the truth.

Artificiality is also brought to the forefront of the narrative with various metafictional comments; from Colonel Bantry’s explanation for why Dolly has imagined the maid has said there’s a body in the library…

‘It’s that detective story you were reading – The Clue of the Broken Match. You know – Lord Edgbaston finds a beautiful blonde dead on the library hearthrug. Bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I’ve never known a case in real life.’

… to the eager young boy, Peter, who gleefully asks the police: ‘Do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve for autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H. C. Bailey.’

SPOILER PARAGRAPHS FOLLOW

Despite having a county house setting at the start of the book, I wouldn’t say this is a full-on country house mystery, as the case quickly branches out to other locations, especially the Majestic Hotel, where Ruby worked. This might perhaps surprise readers who imagined the plot’s interest to stay within St Mary Mead, but then Christie doesn’t stop there with her unexpected changes in direction… In fact I would say that the library becomes a setting based red herring, as it is ultimately revealed that the library was never a part of the culprits’ original plan. The surface artificiality of the story lulls the innocent reader into a false sense of security and Christie knows that. She knows what the reader is likely to accept without question and what the reader is likely to be suspicious of. For instance, she knows that the reader is apt to trust the identification of the first body when Josephine Turner identifies her cousin. It is improbable that the reader would distrust this point. After all, why would she lie? The description which follows her entry into the book also sets her up as a more reliable character:

‘…she looked competent and good-tempered, with plenty of common sense. She was not the type that would ever be described as glamorous, but she had nevertheless plenty of attraction.’

If she was described like Ruby Keene then we might be suspicious, but Josephine in her dark tailored suit dissuades us from suspecting her of deception. It is not for nothing that at the closing of the case Miss Marple says, ‘The trouble in this case is that everybody has been much too credulous and believing. You simple cannot afford to believe everything that people tell you.’

When it comes to characters that we are prone to be suspicious of, Christie offers us numerous choices, keeping our attention away from anything that might point us towards the truth in the matter. First up there is Basil Blake, a bohemian who has received the fullest amount of social opprobrium from the village. He is the obvious prime suspect and one with an alibi to boot, as well as the fact that he can prove that the “blonde” in his life is well and truly alive. The reader instantly goes “Ah ha! A red herring!” But then they begin to wonder whether Christie is executing a double bluff. Yet it’s not long before other “impossible” suspects are dangled before us. We have Colonel Bantry, the hearty military figure and Conway Jefferson, a man in a wheelchair who has had his legs amputated. For different reasons these men seem unlikely choices for the role of killer. But… but… we all know Christie! We know her love of picking the person it simply couldn’t be and so we wonder… and whilst she has us wondering about these individuals, we are understandably not considering other possibilities, especially not the notion of female involvement.

END OF SPOILERS

Jane Marple is in fine form in this case. Inspector Slack may doubt her credentials to solve a non-village mystery, but others are more than sure that she can deliver the goods. The trap for the killer at the end is probably the element which most affected my final rating. It just marred the denouement for me. However, Christie keeps the surprises coming right up until the final sentences in this book, reinforcing the notion that surface impressions of characters cannot be trusted. The pacing in this one is strong, with the plot moving nicely along and one of the things I really enjoyed in this re-read was considering how Christie constructs and builds up her plots. So, all in all a good choice for re-reading.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold): Crime Involved Fire/Arson

23 comments

  1. This was not just my first Christie, but also my first GAD mystery and my first grown-up book! It still continues to be one of my favourites. I consider it to be the third best marple only behind ‘Murder is Announced’ and ‘The Moving finger’.

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      • That is actually not an unrepresentative sample, although it is missing a few of the “least turgid” and better books. For that I suggest Calamity Town and Cat of Many Tails. But I hint it’s clear you will never be a big Queen fan.

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      • My first Ellery Queen mystery was the first entry in the series, “The Roman Hat Mystery”, which I’ve read many, many years ago but from what I can recall, I liked the beginning but the mystery began to feel mere mechanical, bloated and it drew my attention away. The book suffered from its execution but I’m game to read other books in the series. Some titles like The Dutch Shoe Mystery, The Egyptian Cross Mystery, There Was An Old Woman, and Cat of Many Tails catch my eye.

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      • Brian
        Hat is one of the weakest books. For the same kind of book done better try The Siamese Twin Mystery or Dutch Shoe Mystery. Cat of many Tails is one of EQ’s best books, and rather different in style and “feel”.
        And give SS van Dine a look, the Greene Murder Case and the Bishop Murder Case in particular.

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      • I’ll second Ken. Try Siamese Twin, Murderer is a Fox, Cat of Many Tails or Calamity town (Not my favourite, but you’ll probably enjoy it).

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      • *struggles with conscience*
        *thinks resentfully of Akunin and considers recommending American gun*
        *conscience narrowly wins*
        Calamity Town is one of the ones I voted for as best, and is probably the one that seems most Kate friendly. It is the least Queenish. Neal has named several of the most likely winners in the EQ Poll though.

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    • Santosh
      Yes, but I said I would leave it up all month.
      In general I would say the EQ voters are doing a better job than those in the Carr polls! The only surprising thing to me is how well Old Woman is doing, I thought it would be Cat as the easy winner in period 2. The period 1 rankings match the conventional wisdom pretty exactly.

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      • In general I would say the EQ voters are doing a better job than those in the Carr polls!

        That’s not surprising since Queen fans are far more sensible than the Carr ones! 😂😉

        I just linked your poll to the Facebook GAD group and there should be some more response in the coming days.

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